Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas after Yolanda

THE wrath as seen in the aftermath of Haiyan a.k.a. Yolanda are still all over Eastern Samar and Eastern Visayas as a whole. But the media myopia simply gazes at Tacloban and Leyte. I do not mind this at all except when it gets in the way of reaching all victims in Eastern Samar as well as the whole Eastern, Central and Western Visayas, that need help till this very second. I personally do not relish the infighting among our political leaders, although it would help a lot if the national government stops making up excuses and simply makes up for its undeniable failures at timely, steady, organized and continuing response to the victims, considering their real needs and problems, among others.
            On my first trip to Manila A.Y. (After Yolanda) I must admit to having gone through an I.T.P.D. (Increased Trauma Post Disaster) syndrome (pardon my having just coined the term) as I was seeing again and again the ravaged coconut trees (our main source of livelihood in Eastern Samar), flattened houses, damaged crops and properties from the safe comfort of a van bringing me to Tacloban airport. I thought of how the killer Yolanda winds and waves have somewhat spared the greater part of my parish (only the shoreline houses, cottages and structures were brought down flat) and not the likes of Balangkayan, Hernani, Matarinao, Giporlos, Balangiga, Lawaan and many other towns and barangays in my province alone. I looked at the people along the roads and byways. There was a heroic effort to return to normalcy, except that the effort was always met by the abnormal everyday scenery of devastation. Till now I marvel at our people’s survival skills and endurance that can only be explained by both past experiences with extra strong typhoons and an undeniable faith in God. For instance, anyone who has seen the extent of Yolanda’s damage in places such as Balangkayan, Hernani, Guiuan, Giporlos and Lawaan would be in awe that only more than 200 hundred casualties are officially recorded not only in these places but in the whole Eastern Samar as well.
            It should make us pause that artists, singers and other celebrities, local and international, are among the first to feel for and with the victims, no matter their race, religion, gender or orientation. But the publicity and media mileage they generate should not make us turn a blind eye on many other local and international groups who, out of sheer human compassion, come to the aid of victims and the Filipino nation as well. Sometimes I wonder if God allows disasters to happen to wake humankind up to their fellow humans, which is not to say that we do not regret their human toll in lives lost and untold suffering caused. On the other hand, who would deny that crises born of disasters have a way of making human beings look beyond the color of their skin and the other biases of their minds and hearts to our common and basic identity as members of a big, big human family? Does this not in itself raise the question of why it should take disasters of great magnitude for us humans to realize the fundamental truth of our human brotherhood and to stop wars and self-destructive rivalries born of hegemonic ambitions? Is not the Yolanda cataclysm ironic in that a disaster sidelined the poisoned relations among nations, which in themselves are a sure recipe to mutually assured destruction among us?
It was so obvious there are gaps in the disaster responses by various groups. Some places, such as Guiuan or Tacloban, are given an avalanche of attention and care while other places, with less media presence hounding their post disaster lives, are left to their own devices. I know for a fact that the Diocese of Borongan and, to a certain extent, the provincial government are trying hard to address these gaps. But their resources are understandably very limited. Thankfully, some local and international aggrupations, through whom we feel the compassionate hand of Mother Church, like Caritas Manila, Gawad Kalinga of CFC, Catholic Relief Services, truckloads of relief and service personnel from other dioceses of the country, Caritas Germany etc., have been on hand to provide us much needed help. Again, the brotherhood of humanity is something we in Church proclaim as not only a matter of belief but also of practice.
This Christmas there should not be a grand celebration in Eastern Samar. But this Christmas will be laden with a lot more meaning and spirituality. We certainly will feel the poverty, vulnerability and lowliness of the baby Jesus in the manger. We will go through same insecurity and deprivations we so lovingly gaze upon in the Holy Family. It should be our hope and prayer that the same blessed emptiness wake us up to the grandeur of God’s humble but unfailing love.
In a place called Brgy Bagtong, near Salcedo, Eastern Samar, I saw a vast heartbreaking scene of coconut trees either blown down, cut up or twisted in all shapes and directions like candles in the Super Typhoon winds. But, to my surprise, a farmer was in the same area. He was planting camote and camoteng kahoy that had now covered almost a hectare of fresh vegetation against a backdrop of wanton devastation. That, I believe, sums up the Eastern Samar spirit. A spirit that runs in our blood up to and beyond Christmas, as we prepare with St. Joseph to stand by Mama Mary, ready to extend all the care we can, on her way to giving birth to him who brings not only cheer but the gift of God’s heavenly kingdom even in the impoverished hovels of the earth.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a super typhoon survivor

YES, I survived Super Typhoon Yolanda.  I understand I cannot take it as a badge of honor and that being one in no way gives me any bragging rights in the fashion of a Mt. Everest climber.  Neither can I speak for all survivors because what I went through may not even be half their experiences.  Still, surviving a super typhoon is not quite like surviving traffic at EDSA.  I realize this as I write now, when it is nearly two weeks after Yolanda came and wreaked untold havoc, together with an immense toll of human suffering, on mainly Eastern but also Central and Western Visayans as well.  Although the media have focused on Tacloban City and Leyte for good reasons, several places in my province of Eastern Samar had been hard hit as well, particularly the towns of Balangkayan, Hernani, Guiuan, Balangiga and many others.

            Surprisingly, it is not only minuses that I see.  I have also rediscovered some invaluable things about life, which, for want of a better term, I call insights.

1.       Simplicity makes life lighter.  With no electricity and its attendant services (cell phone, the internet, etc.) to complicate our lives, Eastern SamareƱos are turning in droves to churches, family and community acts.  We have instinctively re-established family and community bonding, in no time opening our eyes to other victims who suffered more losses and trauma than we did .  it is so disheartening to hear of families torn by the deaths of other members and the destruction of homes and property, their cherished memories and hard-earned assets now literally gone with the wind.  But it is equally edifying to witness people enjoying quire moments of prayer, family or neighborly chats and the occasional laughter with other survivors and people who care.  A young tricycle driver summed up the wisdom he gained from the terrifying ordeal:  “It now seems clear to me that what comes from human beings which used to make life easier can just as easily disappear.  Cell phone communications, the internet, houses you spent a fortune to build, crops you struggled hard to plant or maintain, business structures that took years to put up—suddenly they were not there anymore.  Maybe, I think, God is teaching us only he doesn’t pass.”

2.      Tragedy uncovers our basic humanity and the brotherhood of human beings.  Forgive me but the first aspect of our humanity that comes out of tragedy is our basic self-centeredness.  Stories of survivors suffering “survivor’s guilt” come from a realization of how it is every man/woman for himself/herself at the moment of tragic impact.  The negative human factor was also in evidence when experts failed to make clear to many people the real meanings of the terms of warning.  For instance, “storm surge” was a term many people dismissed because they did not understand what it meant.  Had people been simply told, local leaders bewail, that they would be dealing with “tidal waves” or “tsunami waves”, there would have been a more cooperative response to official calls for evacuation.  Still, the more important side of our humanity is the sympathy and compassion from total strangers who went to great lengths to offer real, concrete help, such as food, water, clothes, fuel, and a consoling word or prayer.

3.      Filipino humor tempers the stranglehold of trauma.  Elderly people and their family members who barely survived the onslaughts of giant waves (“three waves as tall as out tallest coconut trees,” said one survivor from Hernani) joked about being forced to bathe by the ocean more forcefully and more convincingly than by family.  When so many people were into panic buying because of the isolation-generated scarcity of food, fuel and other basic necessitates, it is told that a boy asked his father, “Tatay, people are into panic buying.  Why are we here doing nothing?”  the father thoughtfully answered, “Don’t worry, son.  We also have ‘panic,’ we just don’t having ‘buying’.”  Other people do think odd when we smile or laugh in the middle of debris and ruins, but Pinoy humor comes in handy when we are trying to cope with enormous tragedies, such as the one we have been through.  When we laugh together while we cry over the loss of our loved ones and our properties, we recommit ourselves to life and sanity.  Tragedy has a way of making psychological wrecks out of people.  But thanks to Pinoy humor, we have a way of breaking out of the grip of shock and trauma.

4.      Tragedy tests faith but ironically also serves to refine and increase it. I can still see the pain in people’s eyes behind unasked question:  “We prayed so much to be spared of this super typhoon, but why did God not hear our prayers?”  Many times I feel tempted to do a Fr. Merino, my OT professor who was wont to say to a difficult situation, “Wait till I meet God, I’ll ask him that myself.”  For us in Lalawigan, our prayer vigils bore fruit in the super typhoon not causing us as much destruction as we expected.  Except for houses and cottages on our shoreline that were either crushed or blown away, most of our houses and coconut trees are still standing, though battered, bruised or twisted.  Most of all, we had zero casualty.  As I stood to face the community at Mass on the Sunday after Super Typhoon Yolanda’s violent invasion, I said, “I am just so happy to see you all here, alive and well.  Indeed the Holy Eucharist now has a special reason for its celebration.  Let’s thank the Lord from our hearts for the gifts of life-preservation and protection.”  No one objected.  Some were in tears over the simple realization that we could have suffered a worse plight (we could have been physically absent on  that Sunday morning Mass), if not for God’s merciful response to our prayers.

5.      Credit grabbing and playing blame game may advance or ruin someone’s political career but both will further victimize the victims themselves.  To be fair, politicians are among the first to be called upon in tragedy and also among the first to respond to it.  It is perfectly understandable that these same politicians have rivalries and enmities build up through the years.  But to use the tragedy of Super Typhoon Yolanda to feed bloated but false information on the number of casualties and the extent of destruction to generate media mileage is the height of inhumanity and insensitivity.  For example, a priest from Guiuan was so distressed to hear his hometown suffered 1000 casualties (who would have fed an information like that to media people unless he had the power and the means?)  the he had to, as it were move heaven and earth, with his motorcycle, though road debris to see if his mother and siblings survived.  He was grateful they all did.  He was happily surprised, too, that casualties amounted to less than 100 in the official count (93 as of the latest).  But his happy surprise turned to outrage when a relative arrived also after having braved the virtually impassable roads, and exclaiming, “My god, I’m so glad you are all alive.  I had to come because I heard our casualties went by the thousands.”  Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman once likened this type of circumstance to frogs in a pond, being stoned by boys: “The frogs said to the boys who were throwing stones at them, ‘For you it may be fun; for us it is death’.”  Perhaps we could also say to unconscionable political leaders out to gain political advantage out of this colossal tragedy:  “for you it may be about advancing your political career; for us it is about our life and death!”